Episode One Hundred and Fifty Six: Space; Other Dyson Products; Not Yet, But Soon

by danhon

0.0 Station Ident

2pm, 2 hours after my talk finished, a short metro ride to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. The talk went well – they mostly do, and the nervousness before it was the normal kind. Not the worst, not the kind with the nausea, just the general uneasiness and anxiety. And, afterwards, the come-down, the hiding in Starbucks and the occasional “hi” from someone who wanted to say how good it was, or how it helped them see things in a different way.

I used to get a bit weirded out about this, especially if I’d just given a talk that really didn’t feel *new* to me anymore. This feels like it happens if you do a lot of public speaking – you’re saying the same things a lot, and then, after a few years, there’s this detachment and you realise: no, wait, this *is* actually new to people who’re telling you it’s new to them. Knowledge doesn’t by default spread at the speed of light just because it can. Ideas don’t spread just because someone’s published them. Things don’t get attention and get passed along on their own, and there’s still, I think, a requirement to be a messenger sometimes – if you want to play the messenger role. It’s not as if this absolves you of giving a content free talk of just reckons or hand-waving general prognostication – you always have a responsibility, I think, of changing the system in some way. Whether it’s in the way that people will approach their work, or helping them see things in a different way. And, of course, being humble about the whole thing. Because I can read all of the above in a different tone of voice, and fuck me if it doesn’t sound privileged and smug.

1.0 Space

I’m writing this on the second floor at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. There is an exhibition here celebrating 10 years of Spirit and Opportunity – more properly, Mars Exploration Rovers A and B, that NASA launched from Earth in 2003. Ten years later, Opportunity is still running, having exceeded its 90 sol (92.5 day) mission by over ten years. We lost contact with its Opportunity’s twin, Spirit, on March 22, 2010.

I want you to understand what Spirit and Opportunity mean to me. I didn’t get Apollo. I’m too young. Born in 1979, I’m a child of the Space Shuttle age. My cohort weren’t even ten years old when the Challenger disaster happened, and in 2003, when Columbia happened and the space age that we grew up with really died, we’d only just finished university.

I’m kind of kidding, but only because I’m processing what this *feels* like. It’s our tendency to anthropomorphise things, but we send out these probes on their own, agents and emissaries of humanity, and they’re so, so far away. Space, you see, is really big.

It feels like this: when I see the banner at the entrance to the exhibit, proclaiming a celebration of ten years of these probes and what they’ve done for us, Spirit and Opportunity are, in their way, a knock-out punch straight back to eight year old me who watched Space Camp and dreamed of going into orbit. I remember when I was quite young when my dad, an academic and an engineer, would proudly bring home the product of his department’s latest acquisition: a full-colour large print plotter, for CAD diagrams. One of them was a contour map of re-entry temperature tolerances of Shuttle. It was beautiful. Growing up, my brother and I had a tent in the back garden, one modelled after the Shuttle, too.

Just a young boy, and everything, everything I could get my hands on about space. Watching The Sky at Night when Patrick Moore was excitedly telling us about Giotto, about to rendezvous with Halley’s Comet. The British Interplanetary Society’s plans for Daedalus, a ship that might take us to the stars.

But we were British, in Britain, and gazing from afar at America’s reaching outside that thin layer of atmosphere we had and the plans to past that, the international space station – all of that, all of that felt like it vanished when the Shuttle died.

It didn’t, of course. We send our avatars into space now, unfurling wings of solar cells, dropping SUV-sized autonomous probes in engineering feats compared to landing a hole-in-one from the next county over when the hole itself is moving faster than a plane.

And such avatars. Because I look at them now, I look at those probes now and they’ve got as much character and as much dream inside them, as much yearning to get out there and *see* what’s out there and to touch it and be a part of it as Shuttle ever did.

Curiosity – the SUV-sized rover that we landed on Mars, had perhaps the most stunning landing, a powered descent stage, and the famous sky-crane landing before ending with a perfect-ten soft-touch, wheels-down landing that was watched online by over 3 million people.

For all the women and men who worked and are working at JPL and NASA and all the other supporting institutions on MER-A and MER-B, for everyone who’s working to increase our understanding of space, thank you.

That’s not all, though. For all that I was emotionally affected by the MER exhibit – and the sadness that I felt in its quietness compared to the people crowding through Skylab, or looking at the Apollo exhibits, that didn’t compare to a preview exhibit on the ground floor.

On the ground floors, there’s a look at post-1970s spaceflight, and that’s the part where it’s a punch to the gut. That’s the part where you see exhibits commemorating and explaining the Challenger and Columbia tragedies. That’s the part where you see the word “compromise” next to the phrase “Designing the Space Shuttle”. That’s the part where you see where we thought we were going to go next, how we thought the Shuttle was going to be a taxi. It almost – but not quite – took away the tears-in-the-eye pride that I felt in Spirit and Opportunity, in those little rovers that could, in those testaments to engineering and ingenuity and doggedness that’s led to one of the most successful off-planet exploration missions ever. It felt like 90% of the exhibit was dedicated to that Shuttle phase in our development, that Helvetica-labelled piece of complicated machinery that was a magnificent flying elephant, and it didn’t matter that the other 10% was of NASA human-scale robotics. It didn’t matter that there was a huge screen showing off Station, that aggravating love it and hate it installation that we have resting on the cusp of our atmospheric bubble.

I’m planning on visiting Enterprise tomorrow, at the Udvar-Hazy. I’m pretty sure that, judging on how today went, I’m going to have something verging on a religious experience.

2.0 Other Dyson Products

Denise Wilton wrote a good piece[1] the other day about the inexplicable and yet wearily predictable naming of Dyson’s robot vacuum, the Dyson 360 Eye, bemoaning the fact that the product name has absolutely no indication or signalling that it is indeed a robot vacuum. It could be a great many number of things, and actually sounds like a previous-generation videogame console knockoff peripheral (not even the console itself!)

I’m not sure who’s doing Dyson’s advertising and communications, but Denise makes such a valid point that at this stage, it’s worth asking what Dyson are trying to achieve. The way they *talk* about the Dyson 360 Eye it almost feels as if they have a certain audience in mind. You know, the kind that’s more interested in technical specifications than whether the vacuum is a good cleaner or not.

There are so many other good things about the Dyson, not least of which is that if it actually does its job *you don’t have to vacuum anymore*.

Perhaps that’s a better way to talk about it.

[1] Dyson Have Launched A New Product – Denise Wilton

3.0 Not Yet, But Soon

  • The first military RAID deployment – formerly the acronym for a Redundant Array of Inexpensive Drives, instead, a Redundant Array of Inexpensive Drones. Tested out by the British Military in late 2014 with the first mass order of Dyson 360 Eye robots – in consumer use as cleaning robots – but firmware-flashed to provide border policing and intelligence for the Ukraine/Russia border.
  • Google Neighbourhood Watch is a free, voluntary program where you can help improve the security and privacy of your neighbourhood by signing up yourself – and your neighbours! – to install a drone and drone charging station at your house. Make sure you have permission from the landowner first, and as more of your friends and neighbours install Google Neighbourhood Watch on their property, your neighbourhood will benefit from the security and comfort of always knowing who’s in your neighbourhood, and what they’re doing. The Neighbourhood Watch cloud service seamlessly knits together all the data gathered from the individual drones and provides access to authorised Google accounts.
  • You wish that you could ever have something as simple as the Three Laws. You won’t. Imagine how complicated that legislation’s going to be, if it ever comes about.

Friday. The plan is to go see the Space Shuttle Enterprise tomorrow, as well as a bunch of other stuff at Udvar-Hazy. Seeing family friends today, and their grown-up kids, one of whom is a confirmed Whovian, so we’ve got that going on. I am assured that a Real Live British Accent will go down a treat. DC remains, as ever, hot and muggy.

Send me notes. Tell me your space stories.